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Have you ever sat down for an 8-hour work day, only to find out that you've exhausted yourself over so little? You had this huge task assigned for that day, yet you spent most of that time switching browser tabs, checking email, making calls, doing errands, and other seemingly urgent to-dos.
At the end of the day, that huge task ends up being set aside, rescheduled. You lose the opportunity to work on the next big thing.
Task switching, otherwise known as context switching, is the act of switching from one task or action to another. It creates this impression that we are busy and deep in work, when the truth is that true progress is hampered due to so many things vying for our attention.
The consequences of task switching affect our capacity to get work done. Since our brains can't handle multiple tasks simultaneously, we become more stressed, our reaction times are slower, we miss important information, and the quality of work lowers.
Task switching, therefore, costs us money, time, and effort that could've been spent moving projects forward.
In an interview with Fast Company, Professor Gloria Mark of the Department of Informatics at the University of California shares that half of the task switching we do are caused by "self-interruption."
If one half of task switching is caused by self-interruptions, we'd have to assume that the other half are external interruptions caused by outside forces that can't be controlled.
While it's easy to suggest to stop task switching, many argue (check the comment section of this post) that most instances of task switching are external and that it's important to address this.
In understanding my tendency to task switch, reading this was a breather for me. I want to create an environment that is ideal for combatting interruption (i.e. no noise, no notifications), but if my kids need my attention I can't just shoo them away to work.
I may lose 40% of my productivity, but I will give that up if it means knowing my kids' needs are met.
The classic solutions to prevent task switching (i.e. do one thing at a time) still hold water, but knowing and accepting task switching as a part of our lives may open us to more creative ways to manage and lessen it.
Not all task switching is counter-productive.
Professor Mark points out that interruption is beneficial "if [it] matches the topic of the current task at hand." If you're working on a large project, for example, and your 15:00 meeting will provide the information you need to finish this project, then the switch is planned and beneficial.
Allowing your brain to relax and "be quiet" after hours of work is another example of how task switching can be beneficial to you. By leaving blank spaces, your brain may discover and/or spot solutions that you wouldn't have noticed earlier while deep at work.
It is constant unplanned or unrelated task switching where you experience lost productivity, stress, and lack of direction.
By minimizing unplanned task switching, you will be able to get more work done.
Since task switching is interruption, the best way to manage it is to improve the ability to focus.
We may live in a world where everything and anything can potentially steal our attention, but focus is a muscle we can stretch, build, and strengthen to combat these interruptions.
When you can focus and sustain that focus, you will be able to lessen the stress of trying to catch up after being interrupted.
Here are X effective tips and strategies to heighten and retain focus:
Task switching may be disruptive and a huge dent to your productivity, but with a solid structure and enough discipline, you can improve your focus and get work done on time.
You can use the very technology that creates these interruptions to help you focus. Track your time and your progress on a daily basis, and be sure to sign out once in a while to free your mind of the stress of work.
Q: How do you manage task switching? Share your best tips in the comments.